Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal to merge Illinois school districts would trigger a sudden increase in teacher salaries that could reduce or even erase any administrative savings, according to labor and education experts.
by Zachary Colman%u2028
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal to merge Illinois school districts would trigger a sudden increase in teacher salaries that could reduce or even erase any administrative savings, according to labor and education experts.
That’s because when two districts consolidate in Illinois, teachers in the lower-paying district are allowed to switch to the higher pay offered by the other.
Quinn has discussed trimming Illinois’ 868 districts to just 300, saving money by eliminating some superintendents and other administrative personnel. His administration estimates that could save $100 million or more.
But it would also mean teachers in hundreds of districts get raises and pension increases — with state government potentially paying the bill.
As an example, Palatine could be a target for consolidation with its seven elementary school districts feeding into one high school district. The Illinois Association of School Boards estimates that merging those districts would save $1.6 million in administrative salaries but cost at least $10 million in higher pay for elementary teachers.
In Carbondale, another spot with several districts that could be merged, administrative salaries could be cut by $461,000 but teacher salaries would increase between $1.2 million and $1.6 million, according to the association.
Right now, district salaries are mostly a local concern. Quinn’s merger proposal could leave state government paying part of the cost directly.
Illinois law requires the state to make up the salary difference between districts when a merger takes place, said Quinn budget spokeswoman Kelly Kraft. She said the governor wants a commission to determine how to accomplish that.
Kraft had no comment on how higher teacher salaries would affect Quinn’s prediction of $100 million in savings.
Quinn announced in his Feb. 16 budget address that he wants to eliminate many districts. Only Texas and California have more districts than Illinois. The Chicago Democrat hasn’t offered a detailed proposal for how the consolidation would take place.
Ben Schwarm, associate executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, said any debate about consolidating school districts must take higher teacher salaries into account.
"That will generally eclipse administrative savings," Schwarm said.
Illinois could stop the salary increase by changing teachers’ collective bargaining rights. But Schwarm predicted that would ignite the kind of firestorm seen in Wisconsin, where Republicans have gutted collective bargaining rights for most public employees.
Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican and a school superintendent, said the state agreed years ago to cover salary differences as an incentive for districts to consolidate. He questioned whether Quinn has calculated how much the state spends on those incentives and whether they outweigh the governor’s estimated savings.
Ken Swanson, president of the Illinois Education Association, opposes Quinn’s consolidation proposal but said some other version could save money, even accounting for higher teacher salaries.
With 247 school superintendents earning more than the governor’s $177,000 salary — and 172 earning at least $200,000 — Swanson said there’s plenty to cut.
Consolidation could produce other savings, too, he said. For example, school districts would be able to order textbooks on a larger scale for less money.
Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, who chairs the House Education Committee, said teacher salaries would be likely to rise with school district consolidation.
Chapa LaVia said a successful consolidation plan would require all affected parties, including teacher unions, to compromise. She also said it may not make sense for the state to order districts to merge, regardless of local circumstances.
"We just can’t think that every district is fit for consolidation," Chapa LaVia said. "It’s like open-heart surgery because if you get it wrong it could affect the lives of these children for generations to come."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.